mj007 / Shutterstock.com

Why Trump's Conflicts of Interest Matter

Even if he thinks they don’t .

President-elect Donald Trump has announced he’s closing his foundation, but that doesn’t put an end to the tangle of potential conflicts of interest he will drag with him into the oval office. To name just a few examples, Trump runs a vineyard that awaits foreign-worker visas—documents doled out by a department he will soon oversee. He is currently trying to build a Trump-branded office building in Buenos Aires, something the journalist Jorge Lanata said Trump discussed with Argentine president Mauricio Macri during his first phone call with him as president-elect. (Both Macri and Trump have denied this discussion.) Trump even told the New York Times in late November that his “brand is certainly a hotter brand than it was before.”

Trump’s complicated network of business ties worry ethics watchdogs, who say it should not even be possible for an American president to be swayed by the prospect of personal riches. “He might decide to go softly on a foreign government because he knows he has assets there,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of the Congress Watch division at Public Citizen. “He can’t even have that in the back of his mind. The American economy has to outweigh any personal financial benefits.”

Trump, meanwhile, has maintained that he won’t be bothered by the conflicts, telling the Times first, that “the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” then that “the president of the United States is allowed to have whatever conflicts he wants.”

“In theory,” he suggested to the paper’s writers and editors, “I could run my business perfectly and then run the country perfectly.”

The reason critics doubt Trump’s assertion—that he’s somehow above the lure of profit—is that years of research show even small kickbacks can change well-meaning individuals’ behavior. We know this from studies on another group of wealthy, confident individuals who must daily grapple with both moral and economic matters: Doctors.

Studies have repeatedly shown that receiving gifts or money from a pharmaceutical company makes doctors biased toward that company. A comprehensive review in 2010 found that exposure to information from pharmaceutical companies almost always influenced doctors to increase their prescribing of the drugs the companies were promoting, even when those drugs were less appropriate for the patient. In a study published this month in the journal Social Science & Medicine, Yale professor Marissa King found that in states that banned gifts to doctors from pharmaceutical companies, doctors were less likely to prescribe costly new medications that had few advantages over cheaper, generic alternatives.

“Pharmaceutical representatives are likable people, and we like doing things to please people that we like,” says Peter Mansfield, an Australian physician who founded the promotion-awareness group HealthySkepticism.org and co-authored the 2010 review paper.

Partly in response to findings like these, some states and organizations have cracked down on pharmaceutical swag in recent years. Still, doctors aren’t free of conflicts of interest, since drug companies still fund continuing medical education programs and seek out consulting relationships with physicians, according to Genevieve Pham-Kanter, a senior fellow researching conflicts of interest at the University of Pennsylvania.

Even cheap gifts can create a feeling of indebtedness, playing into our human desire to reciprocate. Branded pens or tchotchkes “make the brand name more easily retrievable from memory and cognitively ease the path for doctors to prescribe more of that particular brand,” Pham-Kanter said. Medical students given a Lipitor clipboard were more likely to prefer it over a generic cholesterol drug.

As Mansfield explains, “if you do something after getting a big gift, you can tell yourself you did that because of the gift. If you did something because of a small gift, your understanding is that you did it because you believed the person.”

Trump’s assertion that he will be able to separate his personal interest from the greater good is also not uncommon—and generally, false. “People have a ‘bias blind spot,’” says King, the Yale professor, “and are more likely to see bias in others than in themselves.”

In a 1992 study, doctors were treated to all-inclusive trips to seminars held at luxury resorts on the West Coast, Florida, and the Caribbean by makers of an antibiotic and heart drug. When interviewed by the study authors, almost all the doctors said there’s no way they would be influenced by the vacations. But the doctors’ use of both drugs shot up after they returned home. Similarly, medical residents were much more likely to think other doctors are influenced by swag and pharma-rep lunches than they themselves would be.

“We pick up an infection of bias,” Mansfield said, but “we get offended if someone says we might be carrying a bias.”

In fact, people who are more confident about their ability to resist influence tend to make decisions more quickly, Mansfield said, and that process “can be influenced by gifts and other triggers for short-cut decision-making.”

So will Trump fall into the same trap that doctors have? Pham-Kanter believes he might, since unlike physicians, politicians have no board certification or formal professional guild that governs their ethical code. “On the other hand, politicians may very well become inured to or savvy about attempts to influence them and therefore be less amenable to influence,” she added.

But Mansfield thinks Trump’s no different from a psychiatrist scribbling with a Vyvanse pen. “To the extent that Trump is human, he’ll be influenced by conflicts of interest,” Mansfield said. “Perhaps even more so if he sees them as being small and if he’s genuinely confident he won’t be influenced.”

Trump has previously said he would put his children in charge of his businesses, but that would hardly a true blind trust, since his children would likely discuss the businesses with their father. (So far, they’ve been some of his closest advisers.) Ideally, in Public Citizens’ view, Trump’s assets would be placed in the hands of impartial overseers who would sell them off, one by one.

Trump has so far postponed a press conference at which he was expected to announce how he would handle his conflicts of interest. If he doesn’t divest, even if he does manage to build a mental wall between his personal interests and those of the nation, the public will have no way of knowing. And as Gilbert sees it, that might be a problem in itself. As president, she says, “you should be free of the whisper of impropriety. It’s not that it might enrich him, it’s that people will think that it could. It’s an appearance of corruption that we’ve been above, as the United States.”

Time will tell if the U.S. will continue to be an exception to that rule.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.